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Gerontology meeting focuses on quality of life

James Birren and wife Betty
CCGG founder James E. Birren and his wife, Betty (Photo/May Ng)

California’s position at the forefront of the aging revolution offers enormous challenges and amazing opportunities. This duality unique to the Golden State underscored the urgency of the 32nd annual meeting of the California Council on Gerontology and Geriatrics (CCGG), held on April 13 at Town & Gown.

“All of us here in this room share the same dream: a better quality of life for the older adults of today, as well as of tomorrow,” said CCGG president and USC Davis School of Gerontology assistant dean Maria Henke in her welcome remarks. “It is up to us to correct misconceptions, demand dignity and create a better society for the ever-growing number of people who have the audacity to remain vibrant and vital their entire lives.”

Organized and coordinated by CCGG executive director Jolene Fassbinder, “Campus, Community & Industry Partnerships Promoting Jobs in Aging” featured speakers from the local, state and national levels.

Martha Roherty, executive director of the National Association for States United for Action in Aging and Disabilities started the day with an overview of the Older Americans Act and the Affordable Care Act, as well as the impact of each. Lora Connolly, newly appointed director of the California Department of Aging, picked up where Roherty left off, examining just what sets the state apart.

“California is home to 6.3 million older adults 60-plus. We here in Los Angeles County have 1.7 million older adults 60-plus. That age cohort is larger than the total number of older adults in 42 states,” Connolly said. “Almost half have a disability. One-third are poor or near poor. Thirty percent identify from ethnically diverse communities; almost all identify at a sixth-grade health literacy level. There is no one-size-fits-all in California: We are many states all in one.”

Gertrude Carter, chief medical officer of CalOptima, continued the theme, speaking to attendees about the inevitable revolution in how care is delivered in the United States.

“There’s a quote I love from F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise,’ ” Carter said. “That’s health care in the U.S. today. When you look at it at every level, it’s pretty hopeless. But we can’t stop. We have to make it better.”

Speaking to the students in attendance, as well as to anyone considering a career change or professional shift in focus, presenters like Lisa Kodmur of L.A. Care Health Plan, Cynthia Schlesinger of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Di Patterson of The Let’s Group gave practical job-seeking advice that illustrated how quickly the field continues to change.

Following lunch, Monika White, chair of the CCGG award committee, announced this year’s winners.

Among the honored Trojans: professor Eileen Crimmins, holder of the USC Davis AARP Chair in Gerontology, and assistant professor Susan Enguidanos, who won the Betty and James E. Birren Senior Scholar Award and the Betty and James E. Birren Emerging Leadership Award, respectively. Doctoral student Alexis Coulourides Kogan accepted the David A. Peterson Student Achievement Award, and Episcopal Communities Services – where Greg Bearce MA ’02, MBA ’05 serves as vice president of operations – won the CCGG Business Advancement in Gerontology Award.

In addition, UCLA adjunct professor JoAnn Damron-Rodriguez received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

“These are truly people who represent the finest among us past, present and future,” White said.

While accepting her award, Crimmins paid tribute to James E. Birren, CCGG founder and the father of formal gerontological study, who made a surprise appearance at the ceremony alongside his wife, Betty.

“It’s wonderful to be here because you feel like it’s hopeful. I spend a couple days a month in Washington, D.C., and I never feel that way when I’m there,” Crimmins said. “There are people here who have strong heads and good hearts, and I think maybe we will have a better future. I’m extraordinarily honored to have an award that has the Birren name on it.”

Asked to say a few words, Birren did not disappoint, earning laughs as he quipped, “I’m surprised that you ask an old geezer to say something.”

His heartfelt response to the development of CCGG and the field of gerontology itself, however, struck an emotional chord with attendees.

“The growth in the field is going to continue: Believe it or not, you’re in the infancy stage right now,” Birren said. “When I think about all the changes that have occurred over my lifetime, I’m impressed, but I’m going to be more impressed when I think of the changes – generational, cultural, technological – you’re going to be exposed to.”

Following a panel discussion in which gerontology graduates and employers offered insight into real-world hiring practices and professional development, the program ended with a roundtable discussion by statewide faculty, including Jon Pynoos of USC’s Fall Prevention Center of Excellence.

As the day came to a close, speakers and attendees alike seemed re-energized in their dedication to helping California remain at the forefront of the field while looking forward to another year of progress.

“In planning the meeting, it was our hope that the program would lay the groundwork for students, faculty and employers to think about aging through an interdisciplinary, multifaceted lens and to remember how fortunate we are to work in gerontology: a growing, exciting field that offers a multitude of career opportunities,” Fassbinder said. “An education in aging today is the road map to success tomorrow, both personally and professionally.”

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